Results tagged ‘ Pittsburgh Pirates ’

Series 47 Preview: Cubs at Pirates

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Russell Martin’s excellent work with the pitching staff has the Pirates postseason-bound. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

The streak is over! On Sept. 9, the Pirates notched win No. 82 and clinched their first winning season in 21 years. All due credit to General Manager Neal Huntington, who engineered a turnaround that began in October 2007 but did not fully bear fruit until this year. The most impressive aspect of this season has been the total dominance of the Bucs’ pitching staff, even accounting for PNC Park being a pitcher’s environment. All of the team’s starters aside from 2011 first-overall pick Gerrit Cole have been acquired via free agency or trade. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the pre-Huntington era, in which the team tried and failed to assemble a homegrown rotation. In this four-game set, the Cubs will see all but ace A.J. Burnett—whom they have seen plenty this year. Now, the question is whether the Pirates will be able to take the NL Central crown. they presently sit one game back of the Cardinals (and two in front of the Reds) with 17 games to go. The Cubs will have the opportunity to say something about that.

HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (T-9th in NL)
The Pirates have built a solid-but-average offense around cornerstone center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 26-year-old has backed up last year’s breakout season, virtually matching it with a .326 AVG/.405 OBP/.519 SLG slash line that has him well into the MVP conversation. Perhaps one of the best signs of the franchise’s current health is that McCutchen will be part of the team through at least 2017 (with a team option for ’18). Left fielder Starling Marte has also broken out quickly. He is an aggressive, toolsy player at the plate and on the basepaths, and he’s the team’s second-best hitter at age 24. First baseman Gaby Sanchez, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez all have their flaws at the plate, but they provide enough sock to make up for their low contact rates. Alvarez in particular has shown himself to be an all-or-nothing offensive option, with a 31.5 percent strikeout rate only bested (nominally) by his 32 home runs. Buying low on right fielder Travis Snider apparently wasn’t buying low enough. He hasn’t hit his weight—seriously, a .222 batting average at a listed 235 pounds—and his defense is considered somewhere between below average and average. He has been replaced by comeback-player-of-the-year candidate Marlon Byrd, acquired from the Mets in August. The other big offensive hole is at shortstop, where veteran Clint Barmes continues to provide some of the game’s best defense but has fallen into a split role with fringe guy Jordy Mercer. The fielding overall is quite solid, with a mix of good defenders and aggressive positioning that is the product of a partnership between the field staff and the front office.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
We haven’t yet mentioned catcher Russell Martin, the veteran backstop who has been credited everywhere he’s landed for his solid work with pitchers. Under his tutelage, the Pirates have been hardly recognizable on the mound. Saturday’s starter, Gerrit Cole, is the team’s most exciting pitcher, a 23-year-old out of UCLA whose four- and two-seam fastballs both sit in the 95-98 mph territory. He pairs those offerings with a couple of hard breaking balls and a good change-up. Many observers have been puzzled by Cole’s sudden erosion in strikeouts (from roughly 25 percent of batters faced to 19 percent), but it has come with a pound-the-zone approach that has him walking just 5.4 percent of batters and getting a lot of ground balls. Both acquired from the Braves in 2009 for Nate McLouth, left-hander Jeff Locke and righty Charlie Morton start tonight and tomorrow. Locke has a decent fastball-curve-change repertoire with reverse platoon splits, but his control issues mean he is probably the odd man out in the playoff rotation. Morton has a power sinker that has led to a career year across the board, though he has been the most hittable of the Pirates’ pitchers. Finally, lefty Francisco Liriano closes things out on Sunday. He has reclaimed his effectiveness, largely by resolving years of serious command issues. The bullpen deserves special attention for its quality and depth, an unbelievable turnaround from what was undoubtedly the team’s downfall in the second half of 2012. Mark Melancon stepped in beautifully for closer Jason Grilli after the latter suffered an injury midseason. The former will hold onto the role for now, but both are ninth-inning assets regardless. Justin Wilson, a power arm from the left side, is just one great option manager Clint Hurdle can use from the seventh inning on.

Series 21 Preview: Cubs vs. Pirates

Marte

Starling Marte’s play has benefited the Pirates this season. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

Will 20 be the charm? That’s how many seasons the Pirates have gone without reaching the .500 mark, but this could be the year they get there and beyond. Thanks to a number of additions, superstar Andrew McCutchen finally has enough talent surrounding him that he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire load. Though Pittsburgh enters the series on a three-game losing streak, they’re still 10 games over .500. They are also tied for first in the league in defensive efficiency, converting 73.4 percent of all balls in play into outs. Part of that is the result of adding Starling Marte to the outfield mix and moving Garrett Jones back to first base, but Pedro Alvarez’s improvement at third base has been another important development. Preseason concerns about a bullpen backed by journeyman Jason Grilli have also come to naught. The Bucs’ relief corps has been the league’s best at stranding base runners, allowing just 17 percent to score in the opening months.

HITTING: 3.7 RS/G, 12th in the NL
Improving McCutchen’s supporting cast has elevated the Pirates’ offense to league average—or maybe better when you consider they don’t play in a bandbox. The biggest surprises have been Marte’s development as an everyday left fielder with both power and speed, and veteran catcher Russell Martin’s rediscovery of the batting stroke that once made him a Dodger prodigy. Clint Hurdle has also used platoons effectively, pairing Jones with Gaby Sanchez at first base to get more power, and Travis Snider with Jose Tabata (currently on the DL) in right field for OBP. Homegrown talents Neil Walker and Alvarez are expected to return to form and provide the kind of power they have in the past. Plus, McCutchen is capable of slugging .600 for months at a time—put that in the middle of this order, and the Pirates’ offense won’t be mistaken for average much longer.

PITCHING: 3.5 RA/G, 3rd in the NL
The Pirates’ pitching staff has been a revelation in the early going, but will it hold up all season? So far, the boost has had more to do with the team’s slow accumulation of veteran talent than any real breakthroughs from young prospects (though left-hander Jeff Locke, who starts Sunday, is off to a strong start). A.J. Burnett’s late-career renaissance in the NL has stretched into a second season, giving the Pirates a top-shelf starter capable of outdueling contenders’ top guns and cranking out double-digit strikeout totals. With veteran lefty Francisco Liriano settling in behind him, the Pirates could have the starting pitching to sustain a postseason run. The problem so far has been injuries. Wandy Rodriguez recently left a start against Atlanta complaining of forearm pain, and James McDonald and Charlie Morton are both on the DL. One ugly wrinkle to Burnett’s performance: He’s not much for thwarting the running game, as the first 13 stolen-base attempts against him this year were all successful. But when Burnett isn’t on the bump, Pirates catchers are gunning down one-third of all base stealers.

Series 15 Preview: Cubs at Pirates

Martin

Russell Martin has played a big role in the Pirates’ early-season success. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Cubs head to Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have established themselves as one of the NL Central’s top three teams. Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Bucs sit at 26-18—just two games back of the division-leading Cardinals. PNC Park generally plays as a pitcher-friendly stadium. With the Pirates’ deep pitching staff, runs could be at a premium in the next few days.

4.0 RS/G 11th in NL
At the plate, the Pirates have been somewhat of a stars-and-scrubs affair thus far. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and left fielder Starling Marte form an outstanding one-two punch that will be in Pittsburgh for years to come. Both can hit, hit for power, steal bases and play the field. Marte does have nine walks to 45 strikeouts in 197 plate appearances, however, so he’ll be challenged to harness his free-swinging ways as pitchers adjust to him. Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are a very good left-right tandem at first base—expect Jones to start against the Cubs’ three right-handers scheduled to pitch, while Sanchez will offer protection against lefty James Russell. Catcher Russell Martin is looking like a steal at two years and $17 million. The 30-year-old has a great reputation for calling a game, and he’s the team’s most productive hitter through 44 games. But the rest of the infield has struggled offensively. Second baseman Neil Walker, shortstop Clint Barmes and third baseman Pedro Alvarez are each hitting in the low .200s. Barmes offers great defense, but Walker and Alvarez don’t.

3.6 RA/G, 4th in NL

The Cubs will miss resurgent 36-year-old A.J. Burnett, as well as breakout left-hander Jeff Locke. But there has been little drop off between them and veteran lefty Wandy Rodriguez, who toes the rubber Tuesday. Cubs fans have seen him for years in a Houston uniform. He brings a big, sweeping curve that will get lefties flailing and tie up righties. His control is much improved from his earlier days, though the increased use of his two-seam fastball has cost him some strikeouts. Francisco Liriano and Jeanmar Gomez follow, having stepped into the rotation due to injuries and attrition. Liriano is back to sitting in the 93-mph range and has been effective through two starts, despite his usual free passes. Lefties will have to watch for his four-seam fastball and slider combo, while righties will also see a two-seamer and change-up. Gomez was a minor offseason acquisition from the Indians, and he’s made great use of his heavy sinker in starts and relief so far. After getting a great deal of attention from GM Neal Huntington, the back end of the bullpen has been a revelation for the Pirates. Jason Grilli was bumped from setup duty to the ninth inning, and he boasts a 0.92 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 19.2 innings. Justin Wilson, who has a big fastball from the left side and mixes in a nasty cutter that plays against both hands, pairs with new addition Mark Melancon as the squad’s late-inning setup men.

—Sean Ahmed

Series 1 Preview: Cubs at Pittsburgh

Burnett

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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The Cubs open up the season in Pittsburgh, where a team desperately trying to get over the hump awaits. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is the star of this team and a complete threat on both sides of the ball. He’s just part of a homegrown offensive core—including second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez—that’s under 27 and hoping to break an 20-year spate of losing seasons.

On the other hand, the pitching staff has been pieced together through trades and free agency. Right-handers A.J. Burnett and James McDonald, and lefties Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Locke were all collected in deals over the last few seasons. They’re joined by newly signed southpaw Jonathan Sanchez. Meanwhile, veteran Mark Melancon was added to bring games home to closer Jason Grilli, after a season in which an excellent Pirates bullpen faltered badly down the stretch.

[PITCHER TO WATCH] A.J. Burnett

2012 STATS: 202 IP, 3.51 ERA, 20 K%, 7.2 UBB%, 57 GB%

At age 35, A.J. Burnett revived his career with the Pirates after two consecutive down seasons in New York. Though his stuff didn’t really change much, he had better control and got more out of it than in several years. He’ll lead Pittsburgh out of the gate on Opening Day.

PLAN OF ATTACK: Aggressively go after batters

Burnett’s pitch sequencing is relatively typical, but it’s where he locates his pitches that can make life difficult for batters. He leverages his heat in the top third of the zone far more than the average major leaguer. In 2012, he also traded about half of his four-seamers for his sinking two-seamer. As a result, he kept the ball on the ground at his highest rate in seven seasons. The two-seamer is a weapon he’ll increasingly use to avoid barrels when behind in the count. Righties also have to guard against him sneaking it back over the low/away corner of the zone. Against lefties, Burnett will pull out a straight change-up, though it doesn’t have much velocity or movement separation from his two fastballs.

PUTAWAY PITCH: Curve

Once Burnett gets ahead of a batter, he turns to a hard, low-80s curve that he uses nearly 60 percent of the time. It’s a nasty pitch that has sharp, two-plane movement. What makes the pitch exceptional is his ability to drop it at the bottom of the zone, coaxing hitters into chasing borderline pitches. Hitters may know it’s coming, but it’s another matter to figure out if the pitch is going to cross the zone or break out of reach. Batters who did swing at the curve in 2012 ended up whiffing on it nearly half the time.

—Sean Ahmed

PITCHf/x data from Baseball Prospectus and BrooksBaseball.net.

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